A Q&A with Dr. Robert Keith Collins, Guest Speaker at the Oral History Center’s Advanced Summer Institute

One of our favorite parts of the Oral History Center’s annual Advanced Summer Institute is  the opportunity to hear from others who are using oral history in their work. One of our favorite guest speakers, Dr. Robert Keith Collins, will be back again to discuss how he uses oral history, and person-centered ethnography, in his work on American Indian cultural changes and African and Native American interactions in North, Central, and South America. 

Dr. Robert Keith Collins
Dr. Robert Keith Collins

 

Q: How did you come to oral history?

Oral history has been something that I have grown up with, as the telling of family stories was a way that my family ensured I knew who my relatives were, what they were, where they were from, and what they went through. In my professional career, my exposure to oral history came through studying anthropology, Native Americans studies, and Ethnic Studies, particularly African American cultures and histories. Within these fields of study, oral history told the stories uncorroborated by the historical record. Although, eventually some were. This taught me that oral histories and written histories are two sides of the same coin. Both records are accounts of the past; however, oral history offers insight into the agency individuals exert in their lives and the observations that they make of the world around them. 

 

Q: How do you use oral history in your work?

In my research, I take a person-centered ethnographic approach, which looks at individuals within cultures and how they remember their past through what they say, do, and embody. Respondents are interviewed at least fifteen times to show their evolving understanding of lived experiences. The oral histories that are obtained reveal how individuals understand their experiences, may say one thing and do another in certain situations for an expected outcome, and remembered pasts that have been actively – not passively – navigated and negotiated though choices. From these, my analyses attempt to be holistic by examining the relevance of what individuals say, do, and embody on how they impact the people around them and how the people around them shape their choices and experiences. 

 

Q: Your work deals a lot with race and identity, particularly in the Choctaw Nation. How do you feel that oral history is uniquely positioned to explore questions of identity?

My work deals with race and identity among Choctaw descendants both within and outside of communities with significant populations. The reason my work has evolved this way is that I have found commonalities in Native American mixed-blood populations, both black and white, who experience daily challenges to the ancestries that they assert, while trying to maintain their sense of self as a person of Native American ancestry and/or cultural practices. Oral history, as a resource, allows me to explore the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave narratives for the lived experiences of enslaved individuals of blended African and Choctaw ancestry and those of unmixed ancestry that were Choctaw in cultural practices and language. Through these oral histories, I am also able to examine how they coped with slavery, especially those that were bought and sold by both Choctaw and white American slave holders and needed to adapt to the lifeways of each. It is important to remember that the WPA interviews represent a body of oral histories that center on a question rarely asked of formerly enslaved individuals: What was it like to be a slave? The person-centered ethnographic approach allows me to interview and listen to their descendants and analyze how individuals continue to cope with the inconsistencies between identification as Choctaw descendants while being racially recognized as black or white. I have found that oral history help us examine the answers to the question “Who am I?” that respondents give far better than any other medium, as there is very little that one can learn about individual lived experiences from collective or group experiences, except for common experiences, which shed more light on the social rather than experiential phenomena. 

 

Q: You’ve discussed a person-centered ethnography as an approach to oral history. Could you describe this and share an example of how you use this in your work?

Yes. As mentioned, a person-centered ethnographic approach enables the understanding of individuals as active and not passive observers and participants in their own lived experiences. In my work with individuals of African and Native American ancestry, I will interview respondents 15-20 times to understand why they said what they said, did what they did, and represent to themselves something they did or do not represent to others within and outside of their families. Unlike the oral historian, who interviews respondents once in a setting, 15-20 interviews allow me to understand how a respondent’s understandings of my questions have changed and evolved over the course of the interview process. This time commitment also enables the respondent to reflect on the questions asked, the memories the questions evoked, and the answer(s) and stories told during interviews. These practices often lend to subsequent interviews becoming more in-depth and detailed about the respondents’ motivations and self-identification within contexts. For example, when exploring the oral histories left by Indian Freedmen, or former slaves of Choctaw slaveholders, and African-Native American children with enslaved Choctaw mothers and fathers, I noticed common themes between what they said about their family origins and the lifeways that they practiced; however, inconsistencies in identification practices that related to nineteenth century slave recognition practices were also noticed. An individual in one context would self-identify according to genealogical ancestry when describing their experiences as a slave to the WPA interviewers, and as a slave when describing interactions with former slave owners to the interviewer. This situational variance led me to believe, and support my hypothesis, that even for former slaves, the answer to the question “Who am I?” was context depended and there was much left to learn about the complex identities as children, despite illegitimacy, of enslaved and/or slave holding Choctaw individuals. This variation also enabled me to illuminate the why behind why they represented to themselves something other than chattel that they had represented to others, especially slave holders.  

 

Q: When you teach oral history methods at San Francisco State, what are some of the key things you want your students to take away from your classes?

When I teach oral history at San Francisco State, I want my gators, especially the American Indian studies majors and minors, to learn the importance of being a good listener and take away the notion that there is much history in the oral narratives that people leave behind and are told to individuals, communities, and/or subsequent generations. It is a practice that predates written histories, still in use by over 90% of the world’s population, and offer us insight into human experiences, particularly with racism and identity. Within these remembered and spoken histories is evidence of what human experiences, especially with race and identity, are like from first-person perspectives. They require our attention and respect as much as the peer-reviewed written histories to which they were exposed. 

 

Robert Keith Collins, PhD, a four-field trained anthropologist, is Associate Professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University. He holds a BA in Anthropology and a BA in Native American Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Collins also holds an MA and PhD in Anthropology from UCLA. Using a person-centered ethnographic approach, his research explores American Indian cultural changes and African and Native American interactions in North, Central, and South America. His recent academic efforts include being a co-curator on the Smithsonian’s traveling banner exhibit “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas,”  an edited volume with Cognella Press (2017) on “African and Native American Contact in the U.S.: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives”, an edited volume for the American Indian Culture and Research Journal at UCLA (2013) on “Reducing Barriers to Native American Student Success”, a forthcoming edited volume under contract with Routledge on “Studying African-Native Americans: Problems, Perspectives, and Prospects,” a forthcoming edited volume under contract with Cognella Press (2019) on “Native American Populations and Colonial Diseases.”


New oral history: “George Leitmann: Engineering Science, Risk, and Relationships at UC Berkeley and Beyond”

George Leitmann: Engineering Science, Risk, and Relationships at UC Berkeley and Beyond

George Leitmann on rocket test track, China Lake, mid-1950s
George Leitmann on rocket test track, Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake, mid-1950s

The Oral History Center is proud to announce the launch of the oral history of UC Berkeley engineering scientist and Professor Emeritus George Leitmann. This is a large oral history, twenty-three hours of recording. From February 12, 2018 until February 12, 2019, Dr. Leitmann and I spent eleven sessions at his home talking about everything from his childhood in Vienna to Adolf Hitler and Sigmund Freud—  both of whom he saw up close—to reconnaissance during World War II, rocket science, UC Berkeley administration, the riots at Berkeley in 1969, mathematics, the evolution of science and engineering instruction, the importance of family, and the kindness of dogs, among many other subjects.

Clearly, the sheer density of his life, including over a half-century of service as a professor and an administrator at UC Berkeley, demands this size of oral history. Another reason to go into such depth is that we look to individual narrators as witnesses to complex historical events. We want them to speak about what they have seen, experienced, suffered, and accomplished. We want them to tell us something about the seemingly inexplicable, the invisible, or even the conventional and overdetermined.

Leitmann boy dressed for play, Vienna, early 1930s
George Leitmann as a boy dressed inappropriately for play, Vienna, early 1930s

 

What do you learn when things fall apart? One of the themes that emerged clearly before we started filming at the beginning of 2018 was risk. George Leitmann’s life until the age of twelve or so had been pretty idyllic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then everything got turned upside down, and a young boy had to become a man very quickly. The coming catastrophe seemed highly improbable in the prosperous and stable Vienna of the 1930s. His elders told him so. They joked about it. Then he saw the man that everyone was talking about ride triumphantly into town, and he saw the other boys marching with crisp uniforms that had been brought in on trucks or out of hiding. His home was stolen and his family were split apart.

Building intact before World War II
George Leitmann’s uncle’s storefront, with Leitmann family apartment above, before the war

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

building damage after World War II
Storefront in 1946, George Leitmann in foreground

With the adaptability of youth, Dr. Leitmann escaped with some of his family to New York, where he developed a new version of stability and relative happiness. But he turned again to a world of danger by joining the US Army combat engineers in World War II. Combat engineers rebuild bridges and roads destroyed by a retreating army, and Leitmann performed reconnaissance for the engineers. In other words, he was in front of the group that was in front of an advancing army, often behind enemy lines, witnessing again and again the fates of the less fortunate. Risk.

US soldiers in Germany 1945
Sid Shapiro and George Leitmann, Germany, early 1945

The history of science focuses on the relationship between the social and the technical. We study the institutions, the people, and the politics that make knowledge. It has seldom been so clear to me the relationship between a scientist’s lived experience and their research. After the war and a master’s degree in physics, Dr. Leitmann was recruited to work on the theoretical foundations of rocket research for the US Navy. He turned this experience and knowledge into seminal contributions to something called control theory, basically the mathematical rules that govern a system in a defined state of optimality or stability. This sounds very abstract, but Leitmann’s research ends up being used in rockets, economics, fisheries management, seismic stabilization, management of wind shear in aircraft, artificial intelligence, and many other areas. Many of our society’s systems are organized around probability, what is most likely to happen or not happen. There is a danger in this design that Dr. Leitmann has lived before. One key element of his life’s work is to account and control for highly improbable and catastrophic threats to a system, any system. But this seemingly theoretical research trajectory was informed by visceral experiences of danger and catastrophe. This was one of the most striking themes of these interviews: plan for the improbable and the terrible. Don’t look away.

corpses, concentration camp victims, Landsberg, Germany 1945
Landsberg concentration camp, 1945. Photo taken by George Leitmann the day of the liberation of the camp. Leitmann recalled that seeing the bodies “probably hit me more than it hit the rest of the
guys, because here my father was still missing.”

Finally, and because of all of the above, we want narrators of these long life histories to be wise. When I asked Dr. Leitmann to be wise, he would usually shrug and say he was no expert, even when he was. So that was itself a piece of wisdom: be humble. We are not so much individuals as people who stand and fall by our communities. When we were planning our interview sessions together, I was constantly trying to get a handle on the vast range of his research interests, or to understand how to approach the monumental and global tragedies to which he was an important witness, and Dr. Leitmann would always come back to people. Did he mention this person? Did he give enough credit or time to that person? Other people matter. Family matters. Family is bigger than family. Other people first. This is his way of living, and his secular way of repairing the world, about whose broken state he always worries. And this is one reason Dr. Leitmann and I both suspect he has been so celebrated and decorated by his peers, his colleagues, his country and many others. He stands as an example of how to move through difficult times and face problems without being consumed by them, to reach a state of gratitude and qualified happiness for the complicated gift of being part of something grander than oneself.

The Oral History Center wishes to thank Richard Robbins for a generous contribution that made this project possible.

 

Paul Burnett, Berkeley, CA, 2019

 


OHC Director’s Column, June 2019

@MartinDMeeker

 

Here at Berkeley it feels a lot like we skipped spring this year entirely, moving quickly from a cold and wet winter to gloriously warm and sunny days. Unlike much of the campus, the Oral History Center doesn’t exactly shut down during the summer, but we do switch gears a bit.

In recent years we’ve come to rely increasingly on the workplace contributions of our amazing student employees. In fact, over the past year, we’ve benefited from the hard work of eighteen Berkeley students. They’ve worked on a variety of projects and tasks, from creating metadata for oral history video now streaming online to drafting tables of contents for our transcripts, plus a whole lot more. With this particular change of seasons, we sadly say goodbye to a number of excellent students — while also congratulating them on graduating! —  including Maggie Deng, Cindy Jin, Carla Palassian, and Marisa Uribe.

Summer also typically means travel for those working at the university. Travel, as it turns out, has become a regular feature of life year-round at the Oral History Center in recent years. Our Getty Trust oral history project has had several interviewers traveling to New York and Los Angeles to do their work, the Chicano/a Studies project has sent us to various in the West and Southwest, and our oral history with former California Governor Jerry Brown means regular overnight trips to his ranch outside of Williams, California, for some pretty intense interview sessions. Oral history at Berkeley is no longer just a local or, even regional, affair. We follow our research to where the good, important, and impactful stories are located, no matter what the season.

Thinking about the change of seasons also reminds me of that moving passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes, brought into popular culture in the 1960s by the Byrds in their song “Turn Turn Turn”: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” I think of this now, a day after the passing Herb Sandler, a narrator I worked with very closely over the past three years on his lengthy life history interview, and a broader project that resulted in another 18 interviews. Herb was a giant in whatever work he pursued. He was always deeply involved, passionately motivated, prophet-like in his indignations, compassionate beyond reason, and never ever considered retirement as an option. I join the chorus of those who express sadness at seeing him leave us, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him to document his life’s work.

Compared to many institutions, the university remains closely tied to the seasons. And while the staff of the Oral History Center doesn’t follow the academic calendar as would an academic department, we are deeply affected by the seasons and by the cycles of life — by the arrival and departure of our student employees, by the beginning of an oral history and by the passing of a respected narrator. As I type this, looking over me from 20 stories up are Carson and Cade, two peregrine falcon chicks whose lives, up until this week, were lived on a precipice of Sather Tower. Now, they are in flight, beginning to explore the world around them.

-Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center, UC Berkeley


From the Archives: Women in the Sierra Club

“Female Consciousness and Environmental Care”

(Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, Spring 2019)

By Ella Griffith

Ella Griffith is a rising senior at UC Berkeley majoring in Environmental Science, Policy, & Management (ESPM) within the College of Natural Resources. In the Spring 2019 semester, Ella worked with historian Roger Eardley-Pryor of the Oral History Center and earned academic credits as part of UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). URAP provides opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with Berkeley scholars on the cutting edge research projects for which Berkeley is world-renowned. Ella’s research projects included analysis of the Oral History Center’s exceptional archive of interviews with Sierra Club members, which resulted in this month’s “From the Archives” article.

The work of the Sierra Club has, over time, evolved beyond outdoor exploration and advocacy for natural spaces to make marginalized identities central in its efforts. For my Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP) project in Spring 2019, I began looking for historical narratives about environmental justice in the Oral History Center’s interviews with Sierra Club members. As one of the oldest and largest conservation organizations in the United States, the Club has been scrutinized historically for its elite membership and prior lack of intersectional awareness around environmental issues. I determined, however, that the Club’s evolution toward holistic inclusivity—environmental and social—can be credited largely to the fierce, wonderful women who played, and continue to play, a role in shaping the Club’s future. As such, the nuanced roles and perspectives of women in the Sierra Club emerged as the captivating focus in my URAP research.

Marion Randall Parsons, pictured sometime between 1903–1910, was an author, artist, photographer, mountaineer, and active Sierra Club leader. In 1914, she became the first woman elected to the Sierra Club Board of Directors, on which she served for twenty-two years. More info here. Photo courtesy of The University of California Bancroft Library.

As a young woman and fellow environmental activist, I cherished reading other women’s personal and environmental perspectives, especially on the challenges they faced and the empowerment they experienced through their work within the Sierra Club. The themes and issues that the women spoke on remain relevant to today’s gendered issues. Their narratives built upon one another, and in the end, I could not escape feeling that what remains, in the present, is me. Women today expand on the layers of work that earlier women set down before us. Women activists—environmental and otherwise—stand now where we are because earlier women were not satisfied with where they were. But the process of change remains slow. Through these oral history interviews, we can learn more about the work that has been done, to help us understand what is left to do. As a result, the Sierra Club’s developing scope of work on equity, and the narrative of its adaptation, is important in understanding inclusivity in the greater environmental field.

In the Sierra Club’s oral history collection, I found generations of women’s stories. These archived interviews with women reflect a development of female consciousness threaded through the common denominator of love and care for the environment. As I read more interviews, vibrant patterns emerged. Women in the Sierra Club spoke similarly on the themes of fierce activism rooted in family values, of nature as an equalizer, and about the role of women in leadership positions within the Club. Other recurring motifs were less empowering, such as inequality in resources, the cult of domesticity demarcating women’s roles in the Club, and perhaps a more abstract trend of women’s apparent value as interviewees because of their proximity to prominent men in the Club. But on the whole, women explain in these oral histories how fundamental they have been to the Sierra Club’s successes, from its earliest days through the present. Below, I briefly explain some of these themes and offer quotes from various interviews that directly relate to it.

Nature as an Equalizer: At its most optimistic roots, the Sierra Club’s founders appreciated the outdoors and the mutual enjoyment of exploring natural landscapes. Several older female interviewees described early twentieth-century “High Trips” in the Sierra Nevada backcountry as joyous outings where neither man nor woman was restricted to any particular role. Rather, all “outings” attendees contributed as part of an innocuous group that moved through the wild landscape. Women spoke of their physical endurance and the power their own bodies gave them—they led backcountry trips and wore pants before women were “supposed” to be leaders or wear pants! From the Sierra Club’s earliest years, hiking and an intimate connection to the outdoors has remained a means for empowering women.

 

Sierra Club members marching for Women’s and Human Rights in January 2016. Photo from of the Sierra Club San Diego Chapter.
  • Born in 1897, Cicely M. Christy attended her first of many backcountry “High Trip” in the summer of 1938, at age 41. She recalled, “The winter of 1937–38 was one of the very heaviest snowfalls the Sierra has had. They had to change the itinerary of the high trip several times because we couldn’t get over passes. A great deal of our first week’s camping was done at 9000 feet, which is despised at any other time! But it was also one of the first times, the only time perhaps, that I really took a pair of boots to bed with me the first night out, to prevent them from being frozen solid in the morning.”
  • Recalling tales from her “High Trips” in the 1920s, Nina Eloesser explained, “There was quite a sizable ‘mountain,’ they called it. We wouldn’t think much of it, but it was about six or seven thousand feet up, and it was called Craig Dhu, which meant the ‘black mountain.’ I used to walk by myself, because mother couldn’t. I walked all over that country.” pg 2
  • On climbing Mt. Rainier in the late 1920s, Nora Evans noted, “There were seven men, and I was the only woman. I made it to the top successfully.” pg 6
  • When asked in the 1970s about women attending early “High Trips,” Ruth E. Praeger replied, “Oh yes. There were always more women than men … but camp was very different then from what it is now. The sexes didn’t mix as they do now.” pg  8

Pioneering Activism: Many Sierra Club women pioneered the Club’s expanding involvement in various issues, from toxins in the environment, to the intersection of women’s health with environmental issues, to a greater engagement with environmental justice. The social contexts of gender roles often showed when some women spoke on their activist work. Many women expressed concern specifically for their children and generally on public health issues, which reflects a conventional focus of women’s activism. Still, these women nuanced their understanding of how complex environmental issues related to one another and stood at the forefront of pushing the Sierra Club’s involvement on these issues.

  • Marjory Farquhar joined her first “High Trip” in 1929 and was elected to the Sierra Club Board of Directors in the 1950s. In 1977, when asked about racial discrimination in her northern Sierra Club chapter versus the southern chapter, she replied, “We were far more loose up here. I don’t really remember anything; I just remember myself once thinking, ‘Oh, there are no Japanese or Chinese here—I wonder if I know anyone who would like to join?’” pg 42
  • Asked in 1979 for her thoughts on what the Club’s role should be “with regard to broader environmental issues of urban problems, the energy problem, overpopulation,” Cicely M. Christy answered, “All I can do is quote John Muir that if you take up one thing you find it hitched to the whole universe. I think that the Club can leave urban things to other groups, who are more likely to be interested in the urban things than they are in the outdoor natural things. I think that the Sierra Club’s main objective in life, and the thing that they can do best for this country, is the preserving of open spaces and the good air that will keep the open spaces. If you get air pollution you will find that your pine trees in the Sierra are suffering—well, there is not much good in preserving the pine trees in the Sierra if you can’t reduce pollution on the coast. You have to pay attention to everything.” pg 31
  • According to Abigail Avery, the purpose of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Impact of Warfare Committee in the 1980s was “to point out wherever it’s appropriate, the connection between what is happening in this whole military buildup and the effect it’s having on the natural environment. Our traditional concern with the Club has been the natural environment. What effect is all this having on these other issues?” pg 23
  • When asked in the early 2000s how the Club develops coalitions with diverse groups outside its traditional middle-class, college-educated membership, Doris Cellarius replied, “Sierra Club, I think, has always had really good sense about this. Any Club member I’ve worked with in the United States who’s working with people at toxic waste sites goes there to be helpful. We don’t go there to make them be members. We’ve never—this is just something Sierra Club does to be helpful. We want a clean environment, and we love to work with you. That’s continued to be the tradition of our environmental justice work.” pg 43

Women as Nurturers and the Cult of Domesticity: Women activists in the Sierra Club engaged on a variety of environmental issues, but sometimes historical gender conventions limited the scope of their work or shaped the motivation behind it, particularly with issues linked traditionally to women such as children’s health and “nurturing” others. This view of gender roles and subscription to them can be traced back to the “Cult of Domesticity” or the “Cult of True Womanhood”: a framework of gender stereotypes demarcating women as the gatekeepers of the home, the moral compass of society, and generally as nurturers of the public. In several Sierra Club interviews, women described their environmental activism with both overt and subtle explanations either of ways they felt restricted or ways they chose to engage in the Club based on these gendered stereotypes.

  • Reflecting on her environmental experiences after her marriage, Marjory Farquhar said, “I will admit that my active rock climbing days disappeared, really perhaps for two reasons: one because I went into the baby-production business, and the other because of the war.” pg. 22
  • When asked about the start of her activism in the 1940s, Polly Dyer replied, “I got involved in conservation by meeting [my husband] John Dyer on top of 3000-foot Deer Mountain [in Ketchikan, Alaska] … Conservation by marriage. I would have gotten into it eventually, I presume, but at least it was an introduction.” pg 2
  • Abigail Avery became active in preserving national parks. In 1988, then in her 70s, she recalled how “[My husband Stuart] was the one who first got interested in the [Sierra Club’s] Atlantic Chapter, which was the only chapter in this Eastern area at that time. I remember going on trips with him, but I would go as a wife, you see … I hadn’t really looked at conservation. What I really was concentrating on during that time after Stuart got back [from WWII] was having the rest of my family. Really you cannot maintain everything. You’re not free to do it. So there’s a hiatus in there.” pg 4
  • Doris Cellarius shared her view on how gender fits into the environmental movement and what women might bring to it different from men: “I think women just seem to care a lot more about—in the pollution area—about what happens to people, what happens to children. They think more of the long-term consequences of things, and I think they get more outraged that it’s all these men in the corporations that really just enjoy creating these chemicals and building these things that are problems. But I think they have more of an outrage that these things shouldn’t be done to the environment or to people.” pg 53
Michele Perrault, twice president of the Sierra Club (1984–86, 1993–94) and member of its Board of Directors for nearly two decades, pictured in 2013 hiking through Hilton Creek Lakes in the John Muir Wilderness. The Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library, in collaboration with the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Library, is currently processing an oral history with Michele Perrault, conducted by Roger Eardley-Pryor in late 2018. Photo courtesy of Vicky Hoover.

Leadership and Gender: Interviews with women focused on their work within the Sierra Club, and several interviews dedicated an entire section to the role of women in leadership positions within the Club. Women discussed the expansion of female leadership, limitations, and regressions. Many interviews explored how the narrator felt about their role and the future directions for women in the Club.

  • In 1982, then 85 years old, Cicely M. Christy noted, “On the whole, positions of chairmen [of the Sierra Club Board of Directors] have gone to men until a few years ago, and then people like Helen Burke came in. … [Before the 1970s, women’s work in the Club] was just reflected in each chapter I think. I think people grew out of [that tendency to vote for men], rather deep laid, not exactly prejudiced, but just habits of thought.” pg 34
  • In 1979, at age of 38, Helen Burke became an elected Executive Officer on the Sierra Club’s National Board of Directors, while also serving as Board liaison to the Club’s Women’s Outreach Task Force and the Urban Environment Task Force. When asked about women’s leadership within the Club, she replied, “The Club has, in the past, been a rather male dominated institution. I think that’s changing now. We presently have four women on a [National Board of Directors] of fifteen, which is roughly a little over one-fourth. I have some statistics which I can find for you in terms of active women on the Executive Committees, etc. Those percentages are going up. But at any rate, I think that the Women’s Outreach effort has an aspect of being a kind of support group for women within the Sierra Club.” pgs 3–4
  • For ten years, Doris Cellarius chaired the Club’s Hazardous Waste Advisory Committee. In 2001, she recalled when younger that, “I didn’t feel any need to go out and arm myself as a militant feminist. … I was busy, and I have very little experience with women who had problems … But I really began to feel it when I worked with these women at toxic waste sites and saw that it was mostly women. I saw how the people from the agencies were mostly men, and they didn’t take the women too seriously. It never made me feel it was a gender thing, though; I thought it was more government oppressing the citizens and treating them like something in the way of getting their job done.” pg 63
  • In 1979, amid national efforts to secure an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Helen Burke declared, “The more men see capable women, qualified women elected to the Board [of Directors], the more they will see that women are able to carry significant burdens, etc. That’s what women’s liberation is all about.” pg 15

More work remains, both for women in the Sierra Club and on this oral history research project. I plan to continue this research next semester to comb through more Sierra Club interviews and further compile an annotated outline of themes and examples. My goal is to organize this rich archive of Sierra Club women’s oral histories so future scholars and interested people can better understand the Club’s growth—in size and especially in scope—through the narratives of its female members.

Ella Griffth, UC Berkeley, Class of 2020

Ella Griffith hiking amid California’s Spring 2019 “Superbloom.”

 


A Story of Science: Oral History Undergraduate Research

“A Story of Science”

(Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, Spring 2019)

By Caitlin Iswono

Caitlin Iswono is a rising junior at UC Berkeley majoring in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. In the Spring 2019 semester, Caitlin worked with historian Roger Eardley-Pryor of the Oral History Center and earned academic credits as part of UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). URAP  provides opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with Berkeley scholars on the cutting edge research projects for which Berkeley is world-renowned. Caitlin provided valuable research for Eardley-Pryor’s science-focused oral history interviews. Here, Caitlin reflects on her URAP experience in the Oral History Center.

Caitlin Iswono, UC Berkeley Class of 2021, majors in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE). Image courtesy of Caitlin Iswono.

As a chemical engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley, I usually write technical lab reports and experimental analyses of scientific data. But last winter, before the Spring 2019 semester, I decided to examine science from a different perspective. While glancing through different topics of interest for a prospective Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) project, I became fascinated by the science interviews conducted by the Oral History Center. Science is perceived to be objective and impartial, based only on “real facts.” But what are the personal reasons behind a scientist’s work? And what are the human elements that help produce scientific facts? After working on several oral history projects this semester, I learned that the process of science is actually a story, and every experiment has a riveting history and person behind it.

My URAP project this semester consisted of research preparations for oral history interviews conducted by Roger Eardley-Pryor, a historian of science, technology, and the environment in the Oral History Center. I conducted  background research on the scientific work of two different kinds of chemists. Alexis T. Bell, a renowned professor and former chair of UC Berkeley’s Department of  Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was one of two oral history interviewees whose research I examined and explained. Since joining Berkeley’s faculty in 1967, Alexis Bell has and continues to conduct complex and comprehensive research in hydrogenation, electrocatalysis, zeolite synthesis, and theoretical applications for chemical engineering. His reports and publications are meticulous and highly revered in academia. Bell’s scientific work is prominent in the scientific world. But what was his personal story?

This question is what I helped explore during the Spring 2019 semester. Professor Bell recorded his scientific methods and experimental results in his numerous publications, but the personal story behind his work would best reveal itself through his oral history interviews. My task was to conduct background research on Bell’s publications and ask fruitful questions on the driving forces behind his vast range of experiments. Together, historian Roger Eardley-Pryor and I researched topics including the inspirations, funding, technological advancements, and partnerships in each of Bell’s projects. By reading Bell’s scientific articles and designing questions that linked the scientific work with his motivations, I learned that science cannot be fully comprehended unless the driving force behind the published lab report is made clear. These “behind-the-scenes” and human connections within the scientific process contribute to the world of academia in ways just as significant as the scientific analyses.

My background research on another chemist named Michael Schilling unveiled additional fascinating stories. As a senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, some of Schilling’s projects included preserving hand-drawn Disney animation cels as well as identifying biological materials used to make ancient Asian lacquers that, later, eighteenth-century French craftsmen incorporated into furniture for King Louis the XIV. Schilling’s riveting analytical chemistry seemed far afield from the work I imagined most materials scientists do. I grew increasingly interested to hear Schilling share his personal history and explain how he came to work on these projects.

My initial reading of Schilling’s published work left me curious to how and why he conducted such diverse projects in art conservation. I grasped the technical aspects of Schilling’s work, but I found myself asking “Why did he do this as a chemist? Why was this his topic of interest and who initiated it?” As I learned more about Schilling’s personal background and the steps he took to achieve his career accomplishments, I could better understand the timeline and motivations behind his work. Those motivations and the processes before lab work began are not found in published reports, but only through Schilling recounting his own history and life contexts. Here was another example of science and oral history joining together to reveal the human aspects in the scientific process.

Assisting UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center as an undergraduate research apprentice this semester was personally rewarding. Weekly meetings with Dr. Roger Eardley-Pryor helped me grasp more than just the “technical” parts of science. Analyzing lab reports is not enough to understand the bigger picture and the human processes of science. Instead, we sought answers to “Why? For what purpose? How? For whom? With whom?” Questions like these can help explain why and how new scientific knowledge is produced.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley work on Nuclear Science experiments for new medical treatments and imaging tools. But how does who these scientists are help shape the scientific knowledge they produce? Such a question is one way science and oral history can come together. Image taken in Berkeley Lab.

I also learned valuable skills and broader applications for the scientific knowledge taught in my chemical engineering courses. For example, while researching different analytical methods of mass spectroscopy for Alexis Bell’s oral history, I realized I had prior experience implementing these methods in my own laboratory courses. Although classes taught me the procedures and practical uses of this instrument, they lacked a broader perception on the people who use it and why they did so. While assisting these oral history projects and seeking insight into the entire scientific process, I discovered the driving forces behind an experiment, not merely the technicality and practice of it. Motivations, people, and personal connections provide backbone to the scientific process. As a result, I can now practice my lab class experiments and analyze why I’m conducting it, to look beyond the procedures, to find its purpose.

My URAP experience in the Oral History Center helped me become more open-minded and curious about different fields of science. My perceptions of the scientific process broadened beyond the laboratory. In short, I discovered that science has human history. On its surface, science provides facts based on experimental results and controlled environments. But behind that veil is a human who discovered that scientific knowledge. That person’s individual experience and perspective help explain more fully the meaning their science strives to comprehend. Without the history and influences of an experiment, questions remain unanswered. The combination of experimentation, observation, history, and human experience—all together—produce the world of science. And that is the story that we must read. That is the story I helped shape last semester at the Oral History Center.

Caitlin Iswono, UC Berkeley, Class of 2021


New Oral History Release: Peter Hanff on Books, Bibliography, and The Bancroft Library

New Oral History Release: Peter Hanff on Books, Bibliography, and The Bancroft Library

Rarely do we get to interview one of our own at The Bancroft Library. But if anyone fits within the “must interview” category, it is Peter Hanff. Hanff, who has been with the Bancroft Library for close to fifty years, is currently Deputy Director of The Bancroft Library. Hanff was born in Florida in 1944 and then moved with his family to Southern California in 1956. He attended the University of California Santa Barbara as an undergraduate and then the University of California Los Angeles where he earned his MLS. After an internship at the Library of Congress and a year and a half as assistant to the coordinator of information systems there, he was selected as a rare-book fellow at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Hanff then accepted a position as reference librarian at The Bancroft Library in 1970. Hanff worked in various positions and on a variety of projects over the years, including as Interim Director and later Acting Director of The Bancroft Library. Hanff also is a noted scholar of the author Frank Baum and his series of Oz books. In this oral history, Peter Hanff discusses: his education background and early interest in young adult literature and book collecting; the transformation of library and archival work from the 1960s to the present; the administration, personnel, and collections of The Bancroft Library; and his contributions to the documentation of the works of Frank Baum and other authors.

Peter Hanff
Peter Hanff photographed by Jane Hughan

OHC Director’s Column, May 2019

Every April, as the school year is fast coming to a close, the Oral History Center hosts its very own commencement ceremony. For seven years running, we have produced this event to celebrate the oral history class of that year — meaning we thank and honor those people whose interviews were completed in the previous year. The Oral History Class of 2019 numbered some 111 individuals who participated in a number of oral history projects ranging from environmental regulation and wine growing to philanthropy and scientific discovery to opera and an army base.

This very special event gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we do — the meaning of oral history to us, to our narrators, and to the community at large. This year we were thinking about how oral histories “make history” in several ways: The interviews, once recorded and made available to the public, provide the raw material that is then used for the making of historical narratives by historians, journalists, students, you name it; the interviews offer historical narratives and analysis on their own, and thus they are one account of history, maybe the best first draft of history; and, perhaps most importantly, those we interview have already made history by living their lives — by building corporations, participating in social movements, creating works of art, running for political office, serving in the military, mentoring students . . . by making wine! History happens — and has happened — but through the work of the Oral History Center, and the generous and essential contributions of our narrators, history is made.

OHC Class of 2019 in front of Doe Library
Sixteen of our Oral History Center Class of 2019 joined us in person for our event. From left to right: Marian Starr, Gary Patton, Jeanne Rose, Stephan Gehrett, John Prausnitz, Anne Rockwell, Keith Mather, Howard Friesen, Howard DeNike, Paul Miller, Roger Hall, Jerry Ornelas, Rob Edwards, Judy Irving, Jesse Choper, Laurence Nagel (Photo by J. Pierre Carrillo for the UC Berkeley Library)

In advance of the event, I asked my colleagues for some examples of moments from their interviews when history was made — when something was told that seemed new to the historical record or in some way demanded a rethinking of it; when a narrator provided an account of a previously unrecognized contribution made — really any example of when history was made.

Amanda Tewes, in her first interview for the center, interviewed Jeanne Rose, who joined us the for event, which was held on this year on Thursday, April 25. Jeanne is a remarkable woman who, in her interview, provided deep insight into something that most people think they know well: the 1960s counterculture. In her telling, we learn of a loose-knit group who were the first 100 to populate the Haight-Ashbury, their deep connections to Big Sur, and how they began to change history with the “Summer of Love” in 1967. We further learn that 60s counterculture didn’t die at the infamous and bloody Altamont concert (which she attended) as the majority of her interview covers the 1970s and beyond when she became an influential herbalist and aromatherapist. With Jeanne Rose, the ideals and the spirit of the 60s live on. Jeanne Rose made history.

PHotos
Our wonderful student workers helped the event run smoothly! From left to right:
Maggie Deng, Carla Palassian, Gurshaant Bassi, Tasnima Naoshin, Aamna Haq, Laurel Fujii, Ben Satzman. Not pictured: Yarelly Bonilla-Leon, Cindy Jin, KD Mireles, Mason Osberg.(Photo by J.Pierre Carrillo for the UC Berkeley Library)

Todd Holmes, a historian with the Center since 2016, has created a remarkable project documenting the origins of the academic field of Chicano/a Studies, and for this he interviewed Ed Escobar, an Arizona State professor. In his oral history, Escobar tells how he pioneered some of the earliest Latino history courses — out of necessity because there were none. Teaching on the East Coast and then the midwest he learned that the Mexican American experience did not resonate like it did in California. But the Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican did. So he put together one of the first Latino history classes on those regions, expanding the definition of Latino and Latino studies in the process. Ed Escobar made history.

 

Hard bound books and event programs
The blue books are bound versions of our oral histories, which are housed in The Bancroft Library and also available online through our website. They are pictured with our event program, which includes the names of all 111 of our Class of 2019 narrators. (Photo by J.Pierre Carrillo for the UC Berkeley Library)

We have been fortunate to partner with the East Bay Regional Park District for a few years now and we’ve done a few dozen interviews already — covering many different topics from ranching to public education. Shanna Farrell, who is the project director and lead interviewer, shared with me a moment in her interview with Lawson Sakai. Sakai’s parents were from Japan, so in World War II, his family left the mandated West Coast exclusion area to avoid internment, ultimately settling in Colorado. They returned to California and to farming after the war, but with no money and an unwelcoming attitude of locals, this wasn’t easy. Enter Driscoll Farms, which is a larger grower of fruits today. Immediately after the war, they offered the returning Japanese-Americans a good deal, which included a 50/50 split on profits from the strawberry harvest. According to Sakai, this helped many families back on their feet after the war, allowing them to earn enough money to buy their own farms and thus independence. Shanna said, “I scoured my food history books and didn’t find any information about this. I felt like I had stumbled upon a hidden historical gem.” Lawson Sakai made history.

This past year we renewed our long-running partnership with the Sierra Club to document the organization’s history, and Roger Eardley-Pryor conducted two interviews this year, one with former president Michele Perrault. Roger recalled for me how this interview provides a unique and personal window into the international dimensions of environmentalism. Perrault told stories of traveling to the Soviet Union, China, and India in the early 1990s where she and her colleagues networked with proto-environmental groups, teaching them how to organize and what the key issues were. Their work resulted in, among other things, the creation of some of the first nature preserves in those countries and the establishment of the robust network that is in place today. Michele Perrault made history.

OHC event in Morrison Library
Elaine Tennant, Director of The Bancroft Library, welcomes our Class of 2019 and special guests to the commencement, which took place in the beautiful Morrison Library. (Photo by J.Pierre Carrillo for the UC Berkeley Library)

In the coming weeks and months, we will release the oral histories that are not already posted online. This past year we conducted at least 500 hours of new interviews and we are deeply grateful for the support of numerous individuals and institutions for making this work possible. Soon we will begin to post the names of these sponsors on our website so you can thank them too. In the meantime, enjoy the photos and our video from the commencement, highlighting interviews from the Oral History Center Class of 2019.

Our 10-minute video features highlights from the interviews of all of the narrators who were able to attend commencement, plus some bonus interviews. Our remarkable narrators share their insights about nature, science, art, the university, wine making, and more.

Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center, UC Berkeley


Peter J. Taylor: The Getty Trust from a Trustee’s Perspective, 2005-2017

As part of an ongoing partnership between the Oral History Center and the Getty Trust, we recently conducted an interview with a former member of the J. Paul Getty Trust Board of Trustees: Peter J. Taylor.

Peter J. Taylor is president of ECMC [Education Credit Management Corporation] Foundation, and served on the Board of Trustees for the Getty Trust from 2005 to 2017. Mr. Taylor grew up in Los Angeles, California, and attended University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in the 1970s. He is a graduate of the Coro Fellowship Program and completed his master’s degree at Claremont Graduate School. Taylor then worked as legislative staff for California Assemblyman Mike Roos. He transitioned to finance and worked for the Lehman Brothers until the 2008 Recession. Taylor served as the CFO of the University of California from 2009 to 2014, and then joined ECMC Foundation in 2014. In addition to the Getty Trust, Taylor has served on the boards of the James Irvine Foundation, the UCLA Alumni Association, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, and has been a member of the California State University System Board of Trustees since 2015. He was previously Alumni Representative on the University of California Board of Regents, and was chair of the UCLA African American Admissions and Retention Task Force.

Peter J. Taylor: The Getty Trust from a Trustee’s Perspective, 2005-2017

Taylor’s oral history interview offers insight into the management of the Getty Trust from the perspective of a trustee, as well as the challenges and successes of steering such a large arts organization. Taylor’s background in education and serving on the boards of other nonprofits bolstered his confidence in taking on the many challenges of the Getty Trust, though he admits he had little previous exposure to visual arts.

When Taylor joined the organization in 2005, the organization was facing an antiquities scandal, was the subject of an investigation by the California Attorney General, was struggling with internal management, and was receiving bad press from media outlets. The 2008 Recession also posed a problem for an arts institution that relied upon its endowment. With his background in finance, Taylor was an obvious choice for Chair of the Audit Committee, and helped lead the organization through the many difficult discussions about budget cuts and institutional priorities. Listen as Taylor recounts how the Recession impacted the Getty:

Taylor  also points to the significant strides the Getty Trust has made in creating greater public impact through exhibitions that speak to the local community, education programs that bring more children to the museum, and providing more resources online – especially Getty images.  In fact, he counts the move towards open content as one of the greatest achievements during his tenure as a trustee. Listen as Taylor discusses pushing for more open access resources at the Getty Trust:

Explore Peter J. Taylor’s oral history and learn more about the mission and history of the Getty Trust!


From the Archives: C. Judson King

“Freeze-Dried Turkey, Food Tech, and Futures”

by Caitlin Iswono

Caitlin Iswono is a sophomore undergraduate student at UC Berkeley majoring in chemical engineering. In the Spring 2019 semester, Caitlin worked with historian Roger Eardley-Pryor of the Oral History Center and earned academic credits as part of UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). URAP  provides opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with Berkeley scholars on the cutting edge research projects for which Berkeley is world-renowned. Caitlin provided valuable research for Eardley-Pryor’s science-focused oral history interviews this past semester. Caitlin’s explorations of the Oral History Center’s existing interviews resulted in this month’s “From the Archives” article.

“I had my turkeys. I think I may still have a piece of freeze-dried turkey that’s now fifty years old.”

C. Judson King, “A Career in Chemical Engineering and University Administration, 1963-2013,” oral history interviews conducted by Lisa Rubens and Emily Redman, with Sam Redman, in 2011, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2013.

Freeze-dried Space Station food and utensils on tray. A versatile process, freeze drying is used in various fields, including space travel. NASA implements freeze-dried foods as a daily staple of astronauts. Image taken in NASA’s Food Tasting lab.

In 1963, at age 29, C. Judson “Jud” King was backpacking in California when a fellow Boy Scouts Master revealed he freeze-dried his food before weeklong trips to the Sierra Mountains with groups of ten to twelve people. While the levels of safety and sanitation were not like today’s freeze-dried food, this period in King’s early adulthood sparked a branch of his later academic research that opened new discoveries and advancements in the food-technology industry. Like King’s connection with hiking and freeze-drying, I also aspire to coalesce my personal interests—namely, in humanitarian aid—with research in food technology for my future career.

King, a professor emeritus of UC Berkeley’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, held positions in a wide variety of academic and administrative posts. Throughout his career, King served as the Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs of the University of California system, as Dean of the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley, and as Chair of Berkeley’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. With over 240 research publications, including a widely used chemical engineering textbook, 14 patents, and major awards from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, King has lived an accomplished life. But how did he get started in chemical engineering? And what might a chemical engineering student like me take from his experiences?

When asked in his 2011 oral history interview why he chose chemical engineering, King simply answered “I like chemistry. I like math. What should I look to major in college? The answer was chemical engineering.” King’s statement rings true for me, too. As an incoming freshman to Berkeley in 2017, I knew I would major in chemical engineering, but I was unsure what I wanted to do with this degree. In Cal’s rigorous chemical engineering program, I occasionally lost sight of the bigger picture. Constant midterm cycles, weekly problem sets, daily academic tasks, and my broader student activities all made it easy to avoid exploring why I’m pursuing my chemical engineering degree and what I hope to accomplish with it. However, learning from the experiences and insights of upperclassmen, graduate instructors, and my professors, I’ve found new purpose and aspirations for my future.

Not unlike King, I also became interested in food technology. My interest in food-tech began after attending Berkeley’s on-campus UNICEF Club and hearing guest lectures on the profound effects advanced food technology can have for developing countries. UNICEF is a United Nations organization charged with protecting children’s rights and helps over 190 disadvantaged territories around the world. It does so, in part, by incorporating food science and technology in their efforts to assist malnourished children, particularly with Ready to Use Therapeutic Foods (RUTF). Learning about this advancement sparked my interest in food science, similar to how hiking inspired King’s research transition to freeze-drying foods. King’s successful research and collaborations with companies such as Proctor and Gamble opened my mind to new possibilities. Reading King’s oral history interview and discovering his experiences in diverse fields within chemical engineering provided guidance on a possible career path for me.

King’s oral history also offered insight on different processes of freeze drying and how they influenced history. As King explained it, the development of freeze-dried techniques did not emerge from a desire for portable food. Rather, it arose from efforts to preserve medicines and blood plasma cells for medical reasons, particularly from isolating and stabilizing penicillin during World War II. Only after World War II ended did industries utilize freeze-drying to preserve foods. Industrial processors and academics like Jud King realized that freeze-drying techniques could apply to many fields, whether for military use, backpacking, space travel, or pharmaceuticals. These realizations have since inspired me to combine my passions for UNICEF advocacy and food technology to positively impact underdeveloped countries.

King’s interview reminded me that every person starts from somewhere and it’s okay to not have the entirety of life figured out from the very beginning. King’s interests in freeze-drying led to him becoming a renowned professor emeritus and former dean of Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. His story reminded me that the most anyone can do is strive to learn new things, try your hardest, and take on new opportunities. Your path and future track will then build itself.

Caitlin Iswono, UC Berkeley, Class of 2021

 


New Project Release: Marion and Herb Sandler Oral History Project

New Project Release: Marion and Herb Sandler Oral History Project

Herb Sandler and Marion Osher Sandler formed one of the most remarkable partnerships in the histories of American business and philanthropy—and, if their friends and associates would have a say in things, in the living memory of marriage writ large. This oral history project documents the lives of Herb and Marion Sandler through their shared pursuits in raising a family, serving as co-CEOs for the savings and loan Golden West Financial, and establishing a remarkably influential philanthropy in the Sandler Foundation. This project consists of eighteen unique oral history interviews, at the center of which is a 24-hour life history interview with Herb Sandler.

Marion Sandler in 1987
Marion Sandler in 1987

Marion Osher Sandler was born October 17, 1930, in Biddeford, Maine, to Samuel and Leah Osher. She was the youngest of five children; all of her siblings were brothers and all went on to distinguished careers in medicine and business. She attended Wellesley as an undergraduate where she was elected into Phi Beta Kappa. Her first postgraduate job was as an assistant buyer with Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan, but she left in pursuit of more lofty goals. She took a job on Wall Street, in the process becoming only the second woman on Wall Street to hold a non-clerical position. She started with Dominick & Dominick in its executive training program and then moved to Oppenheimer and Company where she worked as a highly respected analyst. While building an impressive career on Wall Street, she earned her MBA at New York University.

Herb Sandler was born on November 16, 1931 in New York City. He was the second of two children and remained very close to his brother, Leonard, throughout his life. He grew up in subsidized housing in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood of Two Bridges. Both his father and brother were attorneys (and both were judges too), so after graduating from City College, he went for his law degree at Columbia. He practiced law both in private practice and for the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor where he worked on organized crime cases. While still living with his parents at Knickerbocker Village, he engaged in community development work with the local settlement house network, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. At Two Bridges he was exposed to the work of Episcopal Bishop Bill Wendt, who inspired his burgeoning commitment to social justice.

Herb Sandler
Herb Sandler

Given their long and successful careers in business, philanthropy, and marriage, Herb and Marion’s story of how they met has taken on somewhat mythic proportions. Many people interviewed for this project tell the story. Even if the facts don’t all align in these stories, one central feature is shared by all: Marion was a force of nature, self-confident, smart, and, in Herb’s words, “sweet, without pretentions.” Herb, however, always thought of himself as unremarkable, just one of the guys. So when he first met Marion, he wasn’t prepared for this special woman to be actually interested in dating him. The courtship happened reasonably quickly despite some personal issues that needed to be addressed (which Herb discusses in his interview) and introducing one another to their respective families (but, as Herb notes, not to seek approval!).

Within a few years of marriage, Marion was bumping up against the glass ceiling on Wall Street, recognizing that she would not be making partner status any time soon. While working as an analyst, however, she learned that great opportunity for profit existed in the savings and loan sector, which was filled with bloat and inefficiency as well as lack of financial sophistication and incompetence among the executives. They decided to find an investment opportunity in California and, with the help of Marion’s brothers (especially Barney Osher), purchased a tiny two-branch thrift in Oakland, California: Golden West Savings and Loan.

Golden West—which later operated under the retail brand of World Savings—grew by leaps and bounds, in part through acquisition of many regional thrifts and in part through astute research leading to organic expansion into new geographic areas. The remarkable history of Golden West is revealed in great detail in many of the interviews in this project, but most particularly in the interviews with Herb Sandler, Steve Daetz, Russ Kettell, and Mike Roster, all of whom worked at the institution. The savings and loan was marked by key attributes during the forty-three years in which it was run by the Sandlers. Perhaps most important among these is the fact that over that period of time the company was profitable all but two years. This is even more remarkable when considering just how volatile banking was in that era, for there were liquidity crises, deregulation schemes, skyrocketing interest rates, financial recessions, housing recessions, and the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, in which the entire sector was nearly obliterated through risky or foolish decisions made by Congress, regulators, and managements. Through all of this, however, Golden West delivered consistent returns to their investors. Indeed, the average annual growth in earnings per share over 40 years was 19 percent, a figure that made Golden West second only to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and the second best record in American corporate history.

Golden West is also remembered for making loans to communities that had been subject to racially and economically restrictive redlining practices. Thus, the Sandlers played a role in opening up the dream of home ownership to more Americans. In the offices too, Herb and Marion made a point of opening positions to women, such as branch manager and loan officer, previously held only by men. And, by the mid-1990s, Golden West began appointing more women and people of color to its board of directors, which already was presided over by Marion Sandler, one of the longest-serving female CEOs of a major company in American history. The Sandlers sold Golden West to Wachovia in 2006. The interviews tell the story of the sale, but at least one major reason for the decision was the fact that the Sandlers were spending a greater percentage of their time in philanthropic work.

One of the first real forays by the Sandlers into philanthropic work came in the wake of the passing of Herb’s brother Leonard in 1988. Herb recalls his brother with great respect and fondness and the historical record shows him to be a just and principled attorney and jurist. Leonard was dedicated to human rights, so after his passing, the Sandlers created a fellowship in his honor at Human Rights Watch. After this, the Sandlers giving grew rapidly in their areas of greatest interest: human rights, civil rights, and medical research. They stepped up to become major donors to Human Rights Watch and, after the arrival of Anthony Romero in 2001, to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Sandlers’ sponsorship of medical research demonstrates their unique, creative, entrepreneurial, and sometimes controversial approach to philanthropic work. With the American Asthma Foundation, which they founded, the goal was to disrupt existing research patterns and to interest scientists beyond the narrow confines of pulmonology to investigate the disease and to produce new basic research about it. Check out the interview with Bill Seaman for more on this initiative. The Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research at the University of California, San Francisco likewise seeks out highly-qualified researchers who are willing to engage in high-risk research projects. The interview with program director Keith Yamamoto highlights the impacts and the future promise of the research supported by the Sandlers. The Sandler Fellows program at UCSF selects recent graduate school graduates of unusual promise and provides them with a great deal of independence to pursue their own research agenda, rather than serve as assistants in established labs. Joe DeRisi was one of the first Sandler Fellows and, in his interview, he describes the remarkable work he has accomplished while at UCSF as a fellow and, now, as faculty member who heads his own esteemed lab.

The list of projects, programs, and agencies either supported or started by the Sandlers runs too long to list here, but at least two are worth mentioning for these endeavors have produced impacts wide and far: the Center for American Progress and ProPublica. The Center for American Progress had its origins in Herb Sandler’s recognition that there was a need for a liberal policy think tank that could compete in the marketplace of ideas with groups such as the conservative Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. The Sandlers researched existing groups and met with many well-connected and highly capable individuals until they forged a partnership with John Podesta, who had served as chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. The Center for American Progress has since grown by leaps and bounds and is now recognized for being just what it set out to be.

The same is also true with ProPublica. The Sandlers had noticed the decline of traditional print journalism in the wake of the internet and lamented what this meant for the state of investigative journalism, which typically requires a meaningful investment of time and money. After spending much time doing due diligence—another Sandler hallmark—and meeting with key players, including Paul Steiger of the Wall Street Journal, they took the leap and established a not-for-profit investigative journalism outfit, which they named ProPublica. ProPublica not only has won several Pulitzer Prizes, it has played a critical role in supporting our democratic institutions by holding leaders accountable to the public. Moreover, the Sandler Foundation is now a minority sponsor of the work of ProPublica, meaning that others have recognized the value of this organization and stepped forward to ensure its continued success. Herb Sandler’s interview as well as several other interviews describe many of the other initiatives created and/or supported by the foundation, including: the Center for Responsible Lending, Oceana, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Learning Policy Institute, and more.

Herb and Marion Sandler also played key roles in the formation and funding of two important research centers here on the UC Berkeley campus which have a global reach: the Berkeley Center for Equitable Growth (CEG) and the Human Rights Center. The CEG is directed by economist Emmanual Saez and has supported the influential work of Thomas Piketty which looks at methods for reducing wealth and income disparities around the globe. The Human Rights Center has for the past 25 years investigated and shed light upon human rights abuses around the globe.

Herb and Marion Sandler on their honeymoon in 1961
Herb and Marion Sandler on their honeymoon in 1961

A few interviewees shared the idea that when it comes to Herb and Marion Sandler there are actually three people involved: Marion Sandler, Herb Sandler, and “Herb and Marion.” The later creation is a kind of mind-meld between the two which was capable of expressing opinions, making decisions, and forging a united front in the ambitious projects that they accomplished. I think this makes great sense because I find it difficult to fathom that two individuals alone could do what they did. Because Marion Sandler passed away in 2012, I was not able to interview her, but I am confident in my belief that a very large part of her survives in Herb’s love of “Herb and Marion,” which he summons when it is time to make important decisions. And let us not forget that in the midst of all of this work they raised two accomplished children, each of whom make important contributions to the foundation and beyond. Moreover, the Sandlers have developed many meaningful friendships (see the interviews with Tom Laqueur and Ronnie Caplane), some of which have spanned the decades.

The eighteen interviews of the Herb and Marion Sandler oral history project, then, are several projects in one. It is a personal, life history of a remarkable woman and her mate and life partner; it is a substantive history of banking and of the fate of the savings and loan institution in the United States; and it is an examination of the current world of high-stakes philanthropy in our country at a time when the desire to do good has never been more needed and the importance of doing that job skillfully never more necessary.

Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center, UC Berkeley

 

List of Interviews of the Marion and Herbert Sandler Oral History Project

Ronnie Caplane, “Ronnie Caplane: On Friendship with Marion and Herb.”

Steve Daetz, “Steve Daetz: Values and Leadership at Golden West Financial and the Sandler Foundation.”

Joseph DeRisi, “Joe DeRisi: From Sandler Fellow to UCSF Professor of Biochemistry.”

Stephen Hauser, “Stephen Hauser: Establishing the Sandler Neurosciences Center at UCSF.”

Russell Kettell, “Russ Kettell: A Career with Golden West Financial.”

Thomas Laqueur, “Tom Laqueur: On the Meaning of Friendship.”

Bernard Osher, “Barney Osher: On Marion Osher Sandler.”

John Podesta, “John Podesta: Building Infrastructure for Progressive Politics with the Center for American Progress.”

Anthony Romero, “Anthony Romero: Leadership of the American Civil Liberties Union in Times of Crisis.”

Michael Roster, “Michael Roster: Attorney and Golden West Financial General Counsel.”

Kenneth Roth, “Kenneth Roth: Human Rights Watch and Achieving Global Impact.”

Herbert Sandler, “Herbert Sandler: A Life with Marion Osher Sandler in Business and Philanthropy.”

James Sandler, “Jim Sandler: Commitment to the Environment in the Sandler Foundation.”

Susan Sandler, “Susan Sandler: The Sandler Family and Philanthropy.”

William Seaman, “Bill Seaman: The American Asthma Foundation.”

Paul Steiger, “Paul Steiger: Business Reporting and the Creation of ProPublica.”

Richard Tofel, “Richard Tofel: The Creation and Expansion of ProPublica.”

Keith Yamamoto, “Keith Yamamoto: The Sandler Foundation and the Program in Breakthrough Biomedical Research at UCSF.”